Summer in Japan is hot. Really hot. Not fun at all hot. Fortunately, Japan has come up with numerous innovations to beat the heat. There’s the “cool biz” initiative, air conditioning on the trains, and an incredible number of clean, well-maintained, public swimming pools.
Bathing has been a part of Japanese life, both public and private, since ancient times. Swimming, however, is a much more recent addition. According to “The History and Problem of Swimming Education in Japan” (Matsui, Goya, and Satake) a 1955 tragedy where in 100 school children died in a boating accident due to their inability to swim prompted the government to adopt a policy of mandatory swimming education.
From this unhappy beginning has come an important and beneficial cultural shift with many schools and cities maintaining pools and staffing pools. Now many Japanese people regard swimming as an important part of their social lives, health and fitness routines, and overall relaxation.
And while Japan’s outdoor public pools are not yet open for the summer, many of its domed pool facilities are open year round. So, should you find yourself looking for an alternative to the gym, or just for a place to relax a while, you might want to head to the pool.
Here are a few things you should know:
You’ll need to take a few key pieces of kit with you. Besides a swimming suit and a towel, you’ll need to take (and wear) a swimming cap. You may also want to get a pair of goggles. One caution - many pools in Japan have been slow to allow modern fitness devices (lap counters, calorie counters, swim or dive watches, waterproof mp3 players, etc.). You may want to check with the pool staff before investing in any expensive gear.
The same can be said about sunscreen or suntan lotion. Many outdoor pools will request that you keep any lotions or gels to a minimum if they’re permitted at all. If, like me, you can’t show your skin in sun for even a moment without turning bright prink, you may find it better to attend one of the numerous indoor pools.
Also, a quick note about the swim cap. Most pools are lenient about how tight the caps must be as long as they contain most of one’s hair. This is less about hygiene than it is about pool maintenance costs. As people shed hair while in the pool, their cap reduces the amount caught by the water filter systems thereby helping keep the pools clean and usable for many people.
If you have tattoos, you’ll need to cover it up with a bandage or dive skin (form fitting long sleeved or trousered swim suit).
Other gear, like kickboards or floaties may be provided by the facility. In face, often, the pool staff will request that you use the provided kickboards rather than bring your own.
Once you’ve paid your entrance fee (usually a few hundred yen for two hours or about five hundred yen for the day) you’ll enter the locker / shower rooms. Here, of course, you’ll change clothes, but also you’ll need to have a quick rinse in the showers before entering the pool area. This is mandatory.
You’ll also need to rinse off after using the sauna before entering or re-entering the pool.
Speaking of, many facilities have two or three pools available for different kinds of swimmers. In addition to the standard half-Olympic, some facilities have lazy rivers, shallow kiddie pools, jacuzzis, and some even have water slides. No matter how many different pools the facility has, there will be life guards and attendants stationed at all the pools during swimming hours.
The pools are often divided between swimming lanes and walking lanes. Walking lanes are usually on the outside edges of the pool with slower swimming lanes inside and fast swimming lanes in the centre of the pool. You should swim on the sides of the lane to make room for swimmers coming back down the same lane you are swimming up. Pools can get pretty crowded so use caution and keep your eyes open.
Finally, most pools kick everyone out of the water for five to ten minutes on the hour, every hour. This is to check the pools chlorine and PH balances as well as look for lost items, swimmers in distress, and any other potential calamity. Most attendees use this time to stretch, get some water, or just chill out on a sun bench until the all clear whistle is blown.
So, who’s up for a swim?